A visitor landed on Twelve Mile Circle from Surprise. That was the actual name of the town; Surprise, Arizona. Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised because more than a hundred thousand people lived there, yet I’d never heard of it. I also learned during my search that Surprise was a surprisingly common designation with 238 surprises lurking in the Geographic Names Information System alone. They included mountains, lakes, mines, basins, beaches, and of course populated places as well as just about every other feature imaginable. I picked a select few for further exploration and then moved on to a couple of international examples.
Naturally I wondered how a town could become a Surprise (map) and fortunately it provided a handy explanation.
Our city of over 120,000 people was just one square mile of farmland back in 1938 when Flora Mae Statler founded it. So why did she call us Surprise? According to Statler’s daughter Elizabeth Wusich Stoft, her mother once commented "she would be surprised if the town ever amounted to much." With our success, she would indeed be surprised and proud!
Surprise became one of the fastest growing cities in Arizona, a state already noteworthy for its remarkable growth. The US Census Bureau reported only thirty thousand residents as of 2000. Its recent growth could only be described as explosive.
A name like surprise offered opportunities for puns and odd juxtapositions. For instance the town held an annual Surprise party that wasn’t actually a surprise party. It was always announced ahead of time (December 4-5 this year). They also had a Surprise Women’s Heritage Trail. In most places, surprising women on a trail might become a matter for the police instead of a recognition of women’s history.
Events unfolded in a less pleasant surprise for the Surprise in Nebraska. It started well enough in the 19th Century according to Virtual Nebraska.
It wasn’t until 1881 that George Miller and several members of his family decided to built a dam on the small, spring-fed stream not far from the headwaters of the Big Blue River. They hoped to be able to impound enough water to operate a grist mill. It is said that Miller was not only pleased, but also quite surprised to get enough water power for such an enterprise, so he gave his mill the name "Surprise."
The settlement grew into a nice town (map) a few years later when the Fremont, Elkhorn & Missouri Valley Railroad Company laid tracks through the area and built a depot there. Then Surprise began to suffer like much of the Great Plains with a slow outward migration of its residents. Peaking with a population above three hundred, Surprise declined with every Census starting in 1910, leaving only 43 souls at the 2010 Census.
I shifted to a larger geographic footprint for the third example, a 70 by 10 mile (112 by 16 kilometre) area in northern California called Surprise Valley, sandwiched between the Warner and Hayes mountain ranges (map). It encompassed several rural towns in Modoc County, including Cedarville, Eagleville, Fort Bidwell and Lake City.
The local Chamber of Commerce described how the area came to be settled.
A bad drought that occurred in the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys in 1864 caused much of the livestock there to perish. Owners offered up to half their cattle herds to anyone who would take the animals into the high country to grass and water. Men who saw this as an opportunity to have their own ranches and herds recalled the big grassy valley they had passed through while on the wagon train to California.
I also found a Bureau of Land Management brochure that offered an explanation for the name. Prospectors heading towards the California goldfields suffered immense hardships as they trudged overland through the hostile Great Basin. "It was a welcome and unexpected surprise to see the trees, good water and grassy meadows in the valley below the high mountains we now call the Warners."
I found plenty of other surprises outside of the United States including Mount Surprise (map) in Queensland, Australia. It was a mountain, for sure, as well as a nearby town with the same name. They were set pretty much in the middle of nowhere, with the town becoming a home for fewer than two hundred. Tourists traveled there for fossicking. I had no idea what fossicking entailed so I looked it up. It was an Australian term for prospecting, much to my disappointment. People liked to search for gemstones at Mount Surprise. If not, they could explore lava tubes at nearby Undara Volcanic National Park.
Mount Surprise is a historic rail town in the Gulf Savannah. Its name comes from the surprise the Aboriginal people felt when they were resting at the base of the mountain and the loud white people of Ezra Firth’s pioneer party arrived in 1864.
That seemed more than a little bogus to me although I couldn’t find a better explanation.
I didn’t want 12MC readers in Canada to feel left out in the cold so I selected a surprise there, too. Surprise, Saskatchewan (map) barely existed although the Canadian Geographical Names Data Base still included an entry for it. The Rural Municipality (RM) of Enterprise No. 142 had only 160 residents and most of them lived in Richmound ("The Town With U In It"). Surprise? Maybe just a few buildings, mostly overgrown by prairie. The video I found claimed that the original settlers were surprised to find a complete lack of trees which surprised me because the prairie wasn’t exactly known for trees.
This Surprise shouldn’t be confused with the Rural Municipality of Surprise Valley No. 9, located farther south in Saskatchewan along the US Border.
I have a mild obsession with endorheic basins, those magical places where where water flows into them and never flows out except through evaporation. They’ve appeared several times on the pages of Twelve Mile Circle over the years. I’ve even discussed an example in Europe before, Lake Neusiedl on the border between Austria and Hungary. There were a few more of those special spots in Europe with similar properties so I decided to take a moment to explore them vicariously. None of them were particularly large although they fascinated me nonetheless since Europe wasn’t generally known for having endorheic basins. Each of them also seemed to be noteworthy in a way completely distinct from their unusual lack of drainage.
Italy’s Lake Trasimeno (Lago Trasimeno) was the largest of the latest set I examined, with a surface area of 128 square kilometres (49.4 square miles). That made it big enough to be Italy’s fourth largest lake. It formed in the region of Umbria, about as far as one could get from a coastline in the middle of the long Italian leg. The lake had been part of a shallow sea three million years ago, created in a depression formed by fractures in the underlying stone. It retained that shallow shape in modern times with an average depth of only about five metres. However, Lake Trasimeno varied greatly in size and depth based on cycles of rainfall and evaporation, expanding and retracting dramatically at times.
To me, the most fascinating aspect wasn’t so much the lake as the three islands set upon the lake. Medieval inhabitants used this topography to create protected spaces with a picturesque, natural moat. One of the islands, Isola Maggiore (map), included a village with a large Franciscan monastery. It was noted by many sources that St. Francis of Assisi lived as a hermit on Isola Maggiore for 40 days during Lent, possibly in the year 1211, when it was uninhabited. A few people still live on the island today, albeit with regular ferry service and a steady stream of tourists connecting it to the outside world.
Lake of Banyoles, Spain
Another endorheic basin developed in Catalonia, Spain. Lake of Banyoles (Estany de Banyoles) formed next to a geological fault line (map). The Catalan version of Wikipedia had a rather detailed explanation. It was essentially sandwiched between an area of porous karst limestone on one side and a layer of waterproof stone on the other that blocked any outward flow. Unlike Lake Trasimeno, the primary source of water for Lake of Banyoles could be traced to the local aquifer. Water flowed easily into the lake through porous karst, thus replenishing water lost through evaporation in a reliable manner, and keeping lake levels relatively stable. Man-made canals were added to drain swampy areas and create a spillway for times of particularly heavy rainfall. Technically, I supposed, that converted Lake of Banyoles into something not quite completely endorheic since it drained to the nearby Terri River at times. I still kept it on the list.
Even though it was the largest lake in Catalonia, Lake of Banyoles was still pretty small and covered an area of only about 1.12 km2 (0.43 sq mi). Nonetheless it formed in a long, skinny manner making it absolutely perfect for the sport of rowing. Many rowing championships have been held on the placid waters of Lake of Banyoles in recent decades including all fourteen of the rowing events for the 1992 summer Olympics based in Barcelona. The video, for example, showed the medal round held on the lake for the Men’s Coxless Pair competition. Great Britain won the gold medal. My juvenile sense of humor found the phrase "Men’s Coxless Pair" to be slightly amusing. I should probably move on to the next section before it crosses over a line into something distasteful.
The final spot I examined didn’t include a catchment area large enough to produce a lake. Nonetheless the Lasithi Plateau on the Greek island of Crete was a fertile valley with a long history of settlement, with sufficient rainfall and snow melt to support a steady population. I found it particularly fascinating that an endorheic basin emerged on an island, and yet there it was covering a good 18 km2 (48 sq mi), hemmed in on all sides by mountains.
The adjacent mountain caves actually attracted my attention more than the plateau itself. One in particular near the village of Psychro was called Diktaion Andron, or Diktaean or Dikteon or other variations (map). Its spectacular formations were known to Neolithic people and later it became a sacred place of worship and sanctuary during the Minoan period. Greek mythology held that the god Zeus was born in this cave. That gave a pretty good indication of the prominence Diktaion Andron held for the people of that time. It pleased me that Zeus would have been born next to a geo-oddity.
There weren’t a lot of people on the Northern Plains and their settlements appeared only sporadically. Out there amongst the expansive void a place of a thousand residents would be called a city and drivers might not see another one for an hour. I wondered, where did people even buy their groceries? That didn’t mean the space was lacking in interests. The terrain, so alien from my normal experiences became the prime attraction.
I treated Mt. Rushmore (map) as a do-over. Me and some friends rented a recreational vehicle and drove around the United States visiting many of its famous national parks long ago in 1992. I recounted a small portion of that journey in Crossing of South Dakota on Interstate 90 on my travel pages. It included a stop at Mt. Rushmore where I recalled feeling underwhelmed. The massive sculpture seemed so small and distant, a disappointment. And couldn’t they have cleared the debris pile? Would I still feel this way, an older and hopefully slightly wiser version of myself almost a quarter century later?
At least I brought a better camera. This was the best we could manage with a cheap Kodak Instamatic point-and-shoot film camera during the pre-digital days of my previous effort:
My Earlier Visit to Mt. Rushmore in 1992
I’d downplayed the experience so much that I created low expectations for my wife who’d never seen the sculpture. She felt we had to go there despite my minimal enthusiasm because she couldn’t conceive of driving directly through the Black Hills without stopping at Mt. Rushmore. It was one of those sites, she noted, that all Americans needed to experience at least once in their lifetimes. I grumbled a bit and muttered that she might be disappointed although I didn’t disagree with her logic. We drove up to the park, still mobbed with tourists even after Labor Day, and walked towards the viewing deck as we pushed past disgorging busloads. I didn’t have anything better to do I figured, while I tried to clear away my earlier impressions. Yes, it was better than my past experience although the entire notion of defacing a mountain in the middle of nowhere still seemed weird. My wife thought it was incredible, I’m guessing because the genuine version eclipsed the negative vibe I’d so carefully crafted ahead of time.
Several loyal Twelve Mile Circle readers suggested that I should visit the Crazy Horse Memorial (map), just a short hop from Rushmore. Sure, why not. People seemed to enjoy carving outcrops with giant sculptures in the Black Hills. I might as well take a peek at their handiwork.
Crazy Horse’s emerging presence on Thunderhead Mountain served as a fitting counterweight to the image of US presidents appearing on Mt. Rushmore. It represented the point of view of the original inhabitants, the Oglala Lakota of the Great Sioux Nation. Many of them resented everything Mt. Rushmore presented, the defiling of a sacred mountain with gigantic sculptures of their oppressors. The insult couldn’t be removed although they could commission an even bigger and better sculpture of their war leader Crazy Horse (~1840-1877) who resisted territorial encroachment and died battling US troops. It was more sensible than carving an oversized middle finger although I wouldn’t blamed them if they’d done that instead.
Work began in 1948. Much remains undone. The current sculptors dedicated Crazy Horse’s face in 1998 and moved on to the horse. When finished, Crazy Horse will sit atop his steed with arm pointed forward. The sculpture will stand 563 feet (172 m) high and 641 feet (195 m) wide, possibly the largest in the world. They have not accepted any Federal funding in order to maintain independence. The project continues to move slowly as money allows. Crazy Horse won’t emerge completely during our lifetimes and maybe not even in the lifetimes of our children at the current pace.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park
I mentioned earlier that I took a detour to Theodore Roosevelt National Park (map) mostly as a pretext to capture a couple of extra counties I’d never visited before. What a lucky decision. The park was practically empty, an otherworldly corner of North Dakota’s badlands. We hit the southern unit based in the town of Medora. I didn’t have much to say about Medora because it seemed like they rolled-up the sidewalks after Labor Day. I had a tough time even finding a sandwich for lunch. The place looked nice enough in a faux old-timey "western" kind of way although it resembled a ghost town in mid-September.
We drove into the park and took the 36-mile (58km) Scenic Loop Drive. A word of caution, when signs posted a 25 mph speed limit they meant every word of it even along the completely empty back section. Thank you Mr. Park Ranger for, ahem, letting me off with a verbal warning when I truly deserved a ticket. Much obliged.
The loop offered several scenic overlooks, some right by the road and others needing short simple hikes. My favorite was called the Wild Canyon Trail and it led to a bluff high above the Little Missouri River. The park was noted for its wildlife although we didn’t experience much of that other than a few prairie dogs and a small herd of wild horses. We didn’t see the famed bison although several hundred roamed freely there. It became a running joke for much of the rest of the trip until days later when our luck improved in the Black Hills. Instead we were left with the incredible scenery which more than held its own ground.
See! Pixilated Bison!
Ironically, as I leafed through photographs upon our return, I noticed a few black dots and zoomed way in. They were bison. The bison were always present during our visit to Theodore Roosevelt National Park and ready to be discovered if we’d only looked a little harder.
This was my second trip to Devils Tower (map), seen previously on that same epic journey as my original visit to Mt. Rushmore. In contrast I recalled being awed by Devils Tower, a thousand foot (300 m) remnant of an ancient volcanic plug. Once again I walked around its base, neck craned skyward in appreciation of the spectacle and searching for climbers working their way to the top. We didn’t stay overnight so I couldn’t confirm if the campground still screened "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" every evening or not. I bet they did.
Most of the terrain lacked the dramatic flair of badlands, mountains and extinct volcanoes. There was a vast emptiness all the way to the horizon, hour after hour. I never got bored. The loneliness fascinated me. Once I drove a hundred miles (160 km) from the Montana border (map) to the town of Baker mid-afternoon with perfect weather. I never saw another car in my lane ahead of me or behind me the entire time. Maybe a half dozen cars drove past in the opposite direction. That was some serious Big Sky.